Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Farm Woman’

It was the fall of 1982 and my husband and I were visiting Aunt Vera and Uncle Joe at their home in Virginia, just outside Washington D.C..  Uncle Joe was a lawyer who sported a snow-white beard and was so full of the exuberance of life that he spoke loudly and tended to burst into song in a glorious tenor voice at any time. Visiting him was an adventure, and we loved it. Aunt Vera was a wonderful cook, but one night we all went out for dinner and a tour of the city in Uncle Joe’s baby blue Cadillac.  He told us they had just erected something called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearby, and thought we might be interested in taking a look.  I remember that it was a short walk through the park as twilight was turning into night, and there were a few stars to light our way along the path.  We were greeted by a group of Vietnam veterans, who handed us each a flashlight and apologized that the lights weren’t up yet. These veterans stood vigil every night for their fallen or captured comrades.  There was a lot of controversy during the planning and construction of the memorial.  Many people complained that is was ugly, unconventional, and unsightly.  We had open minds and full stomachs, but stopped our after-dinner chatter as we approached.  There was almost an aura about the whole area that invoked silence.  It felt like a sacred place, but unlike any church that I had ever been in.  The black stone sculpture, ten feet tall and about 500 feet long, was made with a special granite that reflects almost like a mirror.  During the daylight, you can see a reflection of yourself as the background for the 58,261 names that are etched into the stone.  It has been said that the image fuses the past with the present. That night, with just a flashlight’s single bulb, there was no reflection except for the light against the names.  Names as high and as wide as my flashlight’s beam could reach.  Fathers, sons, sisters, and brothers. Soldiers and nurses. Friends. I was surrounded by others and suddenly felt small and very alone. My flashlight moved slowly, back and forth, up and down, stopping occasionally on an individual name. I thought of the POW/MIA bracelet that I wore every day as a teenager, now buried and nearly forgotten at the bottom of my jewelry box. I found his name and slowly rubbed my fingers over the letters, tracing each one, saying both hello and goodbye to an old friend I never knew.  I searched for and found the names of hometown boys who never came home. My cheeks were wet, yet I don’t remember crying.  We thanked the veterans as we left that night, all of us forever changed by the experience.  58,261 Americans.  “Thank you” doesn’t begin to cover it.

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My great-grandparents, Andrew and Christine Quaal were among the first settlers in Forbes, Minnesota in 1893.   They were farmers, owned the general store and raised six children. Christine was also the local midwife and helped the immigrants with their English.  I like to call her the original Minnesota Farm Woman.  When telephone service came to the area about 1915, I’m sure there was plenty of excitement throughout the small farming community. Telephones would open up their little corner of northern Minnesota to the world. Grandma and Grandpa were instrumental in getting the service to Forbes, and kept the switchboard in their home.  Those of us who carry cell phones in our back pockets and purses perhaps don’t understand just how a telephone switchboard works, so let me see if I can explain it:  Ole wants to call Lena.  In order to do this, Ole must turn the crank on his telephone, which rings into Grandma’s house. Ole tells Grandma that he wants to talk to Lena, and Grandma plugs the wire into the jack, flipping a switch to make the connection. Being an operator would mean that Grandma must not have left the house very often, because someone always had to be there for the calls to go through.  Since she ran the switchboard for 40 years, she must have liked her job, too.  Grandma did manage to have a social life, however. She had people come in to watch the switchboard when she went to church,  Lutheran Ladies’ Aid meetings, or funerals.  Plenty of folks came to visit her at the farm for coffee and cookies and probably a little old-fashioned gossip. Grandma had the coffee pot going on the stove all the time, the good strong Scandinavian-type of coffee that can warm the belly on the coldest winter day and probably put hair on your chest if you drink more than two cups. Family lore has it that the coffee grounds weren’t changed all that often, but when they were, the used grounds were spread around the rose bushes along with buttermilk left over from the churning.  Those two ingredients were the secret to the prettiest flowers around, according to my father.  The part about the gossip is something I made up, though. Grandpa died in 1929 and Grandma died in 1966 when she was 93 and I was eight, so I don’t remember a lot about her.  I was recently stopped by someone who recognized Grandma’s  picture, which is the same old photograph that  I use for The Minnesota Farm Woman column in the paper and on my web site.   She recognized Christine as the lady that everyone in Forbes called “Grandma Quaal” and had a story that her own grandmother told her:  My great-grandmother, pillar of  society, midwife, business owner and churchgoer would listen in on everyone’s telephone conversations!  How did they know for sure?  Grandma had a cuckoo clock which rang on the quarter-hour, and that gave away her secret. We all had a good laugh over that one, but I tend to stick up for Grandma, since I was named for her.  What harm is listening in along with a little strong coffee and mild gossip to pass the time during the long Minnesota winters?  I watch Desperate Housewives myself so perhaps Grandma came up with her own version, Forbes Farmwives. A little Farm Woman advice is always forthcoming, though. 1) Don’t switch to mild coffee and strong gossip, as neither one is worth the trouble.  2) Never ask for a third cup of that Scandinavian brew or you really might grow hair on your chest. 3) Between you, me, and the cuckoo clock, watch what you say because you just never know who might be listening.

After the Forbes Rural Telephone Company was dissolved, the switchboard was sent to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. It isn’t on display anymore, so it is probably in an attic somewhere, gathering dust.

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I have a new phone. It is one of the “smart” types of phones, and it is much, much smarter than I am.  For those of you who get the latest and greatest gadgets every year, this is no big deal. For those of you who know me and how frugal and non-technical I am, you understand that this IS a big deal. Recent technological advances in both phones and cell towers around rural northern Minnesota now allow me to actually use a cell phone and get decent reception without leaning over the east corner of the deck holding the phone up high and waving it  around to get more than two bars. Thanks to those of you who honked and waved back. This really is a friendly neighborhood.   Phones are now mini-computers. One can talk, take photographs, watch movies and play games on a device small enough to slip into your pocket.  Some people can do all of these at the same time. This technology is totally amazing to me, who  grew up in the 70’s in a small town. Phones had cords and computers took up whole rooms at NASA headquarters in Cocoa Beach, where genies came out of bottles and were named Jeannie.  When the weather was nice kids played outside. Period. No exceptions, unless you were running a temperature.   When someone said  “your mom is calling you,” it didn’t mean to answer your cell phone. It meant she was hollering out the back door and telling you it was time for supper…..and you’d better not be late, either.  These days, if the errant kid doesn’t show up, Mom can push the “Family Locater” button on her phone and find him by GPS. That button would probably have gotten more than a few teenagers in trouble when I was growing up. (Not me, Mom!) I am now texting, too, which is something that I said I would NEVER do.  I’m eating….er, typing my words now, that’s for sure.  Texting can be difficult for those of us who need bifocals, as you have to hold the phone back a little in order to see it and the letters on the tiny little phone keyboard are in a slightly different order than a regular keyboard. Whose bright idea was it to change that? My texts always seem to contain misspellings and oddly placed letters, which can drive a [erfection(st lke me craxy. Younger, more agile  texters have their own language now, done in abbreviations, such as NOOb, which means “newbie”, (that’s me), or B9, which means “boss is watching”.  Learning another language, especially one using symbols, is just too much for a middle-aged Farm Woman. I will stick with regular words for now,  with a few exceptions: B4N (bye for now),  hoping the MFW hlps U to ROFL (roll on the floor laughing) or at least LOL. (laugh out loud). CUL8RG8R. (see you later, alligator).

This column is dedicated today to the memory of Steve Jobs, an ordinary man with an extraordinary vision that reached far beyond the wild blue yonder.

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